Media are reporting another chemical weapon attack in Syria (a summary of prior attacks is here). Notwithstanding these breaches of an indisputable international law rule, there has been only sporadic accountability for the commission of international crimes in Syria. A case proceeding in the United States may change that.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Syria for the extrajudicial killing of famed war correspondent Marie Colvin (represented by the Center for Justice & Accountability, or CJA) have moved for a default judgment. The files have now been unsealed and are available here (disclosure: I serve on CJA’s board). Just Security has previously covered this civil suit, which is filed under the state sponsor of terrorism exception to state immunity within the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act. (Syria has been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979).
Plaintiffs seek to hold Syria responsible for deliberately targeting Colvin while she was billeted in a makeshift media center in Homs that was full of journalists covering the war. The media center had become the heart of the independent media movement, broadcasting from within the Baba Amr district of Homs, while the city was placed under siege by the regime in early 2012. French photographer Remi Ochlik was also killed in the attack (view this photo essay in memoriam here) and several other journalists were wounded.
In 2012, France opened an inquest into the death and wounding of its citizens, which was transferred to the specialized war crimes unit in Paris in 2014. In 2016, the French law firm Vigo, with support from CJA, filed civil party complaints expanding the jurisdiction of the judicial investigation to encompass non-French victims, including Marie Colvin’s family, British photographer Paul Conroy, and Syrian media activist Wael al-Omar. However, charges have yet to be filed against named defendants.
The conflict in Syria has been marked by deliberate attacks against, and the kidnapping of, journalists, making it the most dangerous places to work according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (see my prior coverage here) The plaintiffs’ motion for a default judgment is a harrowing read. According to evidence produced in the suit, government officials believed that the country was the target of a “media-led” conspiracy to undermine the regime. Forces throughout the country were ordered to launch joint security-military campaigns against
“those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media and international organizations.”
In this campaign, forces were instructed to “take all necessary measures” to identify and shut down journalists covering the war, including through informants and satellite intercepts allowing officials to geo-locate war reporters. Colvin had given a live interview to the BBC and CNN via a satellite link. In her CNN interview, she stated:
It’s a complete and utter lie that they’re only going after terrorists. … The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.
The next morning, the media center was shelled and Colvin was killed. The plaintiffs’ evidence contains proof that the regime celebrated Colvin’s death. A defector has testified that Major General Rafiq Shahadah (head of military intelligence and subject to a raft of sanctions) announced,
“Marie Colvin was a dog and now she’s dead. Let the Americans help her now.”
The President Bashar Al-Assad later said in an interview that Colvin is “responsible for her own death” because she entered the country illegally and worked with “terrorists,” but he has denied targeting her directly.
The unsealed evidence that is crucial to the plaintiffs’ case includes:
- A Syrian intelligence defector (code named Ulysses) has provided a chilling insider account of Al-Assad’s efforts to surveil, capture, and eliminate journalists and media activists in Homs.
- Another defector—Abdel Majid Barakat, former head of information for the Central Crisis Management Cell (Assad’s War Cabinet)—smuggled hundreds of meeting minutes and reports out of the country that detail high-level military and security operations against the media—deemed “the highest level of threat” against the state.
- Ewan Brown, a war crimes investigator with the Commission of International Justice & Accountability (CIJA), has painstakingly reconstructed the command and control system of the Syrian military and intelligence services. His testimony reveals the role played by senior regime figures in the crackdown against protesters and the journalists giving them voice in the early days of the conflict. Documents attached to his expert report also prove that the regime was wiretapping journalists to track their movements and hacking opposition websites and Facebook accounts.
- Annouar Nouar Malek, a former member of the Arab League monitoring mission who quit the mission in disgust, conveys a conversation with regime officials who admit that reporters entering Syria without authorization are military targets. The mission was suspended as the situation deteriorated and monitors were threatened.
- Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, provided an expert report on the political context surrounding the uprising and the regime’s brutal reaction.
- N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye prepared a declaration about the regime’s use of media censorship and the persecution of media workers to silence dissent.
- A number of former colleagues of Colvin, including her Syrian activist/interpreter Wael al-Omar and fellow journalist Paul Conroy—who survived the attack on Homs (which he described as a “systematic massacre”) and smuggled out of the country—also provide declarations.
Key pleadings can be found here:
Plaintiff’s’ must establish their claim “by evidence satisfactory to the court” in order to prevail on a motion for default. Plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages, both of which are available under the FSIA. Additional media coverage is here and here.